All about the birds and the trees

February 25, 2000

If you are running a second-year undergraduate module in evolution and think it is time you updated your course, wouldn't you love to have a nice, slim, inexpensive, up-to-date, user-friendly textbook pitched at exactly the right level? Stephen Stearns and Rolf Hoekstra have produced such a book. Surprisingly it seems to have the market to itself. There are several excellent recent textbooks on evolution, but they tend to be large, dense and advanced.

Stearns and Hoekstra excel both on presentation and content. The uncluttered pages and numerous sub-headings are inviting. Effective use is made of the marginal green "take-home messages" for almost every paragraph. The questions at the end of each chapter are thought provoking.

The authors reveal the human side of the scientific endeavour, for example, characterising the possibility of a pluralistic explanation of sex as unattractive, although possibly correct.

Their approach is justly sceptical, as in the discussion of reconstruction of ancestral character states of extinct taxa from extant descendants, and in the warnings against uncritical acceptance of phylogenetic trees.

In its coverage, the book is strong on developmental biology and genomic conflict but relatively weak on the fossil record, human evolution and evolutionary aspects of community ecology.

An important feature of the book is an attempt to identify major unsolved questions in evolutionary biology.

They are probably correct to identify the next major area of research as comparative developmental molecular genetics. In approval of this programme, they make the rather reckless claim that failure to resolve the problem of genotype-phenotype relations blocked progress in evolutionary biology in the 20th century as much as the lack of a mechanism of inheritance did in the 19th century.

On balance, I would consider Stearns's and Hoekstra's book to be the best undergraduate evolution textbook available.

George F. Turner is head of the biodiversity and ecology research division, University of Southampton.

Evolution: An Introduction. First Edition

Author - Stephen C. Stearns and Rolf F. Hoekstra
ISBN - 0 19 854968 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £18.99
Pages - 365

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